Au revoir, Julia Child

Oh, boy. A new year is upon us. Now we have to remember to use “2005” when writing checks. And I just got used to “2004.”

The onset of a new year usually means that editors are cracking whips on frazzled young newsroom interns, inspiring them to crank out nostalgic stories about the previous year. But because this holiday season was an especially busy one, news-wise (major Asian tsunami disaster, holiday travel snafus and, oh, yeah, that little thing going on in Iraq), we were spared the worst of these kinds of stories.

A favorite approach of these retrospectives is to present a laundry list of luminaries who passed on. The televised versions of these stories usually employ the music of the most famous deceased entertainer playing in the background while an announcer reads the roll call of the departed and slo-mo clips are slideshowed by.

We lost some good ones last year. Musicians Rick James, Johnny Ramone, Dimebag Darrel and Ray Charles all stepped onto that great stage in the sky. Imagine the scene at the story conference when the CNN producer in charge of the 2004 celebrity death watch had to decide whose music to use: “Hmmm. Should it be James’ ‘Super Freak’ or Ray’s ‘Georgia?'”

Some truly funny people also took final bows. Seems like Rodney Dangerfield, Alan King and Tony Randall were always around to keep us laughing. Everyone’s childhood friend Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo) joined Mr. Greenjeans in heaven, and Hollywood lost Janet Leigh, Christopher Reeve and “Weezy” herself, Isabel Sanford.

Well, now I know you’re all saying “Mikey, I know all this from watching ET. What’s it got to do with wine?”

This past August, the world of wine lost a guiding light. During four decades in the public eye, Julia Child furthered the cause of wine like no other. She showed the country that wine was not just for special occasions, and introduced the European notion that wine is food; an essential component of a meal.

Most of us remember Julia from the innovative and hugely successful PBS cooking shows that first aired in 1963. Her fluty, upper-crust-accented voice trilled its way into the hearts and minds of amateur cooks and inspired many of today’s finest chefs to pursue food careers. She dragged a TV-dinner-and-Spam-addicted America kicking and screaming into the world of fine cuisine and along the way helped usher in a revolution in the way wine is perceived and consumed in this country.

Julia touched many lives in her 91 years and won a lot of friends. One man who was lucky enough to know her well is Gary Ibsen of Carmel, a former magazine publisher, beverage industry executive and restaurateur. Gary served on the national board of the American Institute of Wine and Food (AIWF) with Julia and Napa wine pioneer Robert Mondavi and was instrumental in founding the Monterey Bay Chapter of the organization. He spent a lot of time with Ms. Child on the road promoting the AIWF.

“Julia Child is one of the most beautiful human beings I have ever met,” says Gary. He views her as a mentor and mother figure and delights in sharing tales of her legendary charm and wit.

Everywhere she went, chefs outdid themselves to impress her. They would offer up lavish desserts, which she would decline, claiming she couldn’t eat another bite. She would then proceed to consume the desserts of the person sitting to the left and right of her. “I lost a lot of desserts to her,” Gary laments.

Ms. Child was a regular guest at the Masters of Food and Wine at the Highlands Inn in Carmel. He remembers that for her 80th birthday celebration he was trying to get the White House to recognize this milestone. After much bureaucratic wrangling, a congratulatory fax arrived at the last moment from then-president George Bush, Sr. and First Lady Barbara. After proudly reading it to her at the dinner, she said “You didn’t have to go through all that trouble, Gary. You know I’m a Democrat, and it doesn’t mean all that much to me.”

Today, Gary is in the heirloom tomato business. He is the founder of the popular Carmel TomatoFest – an event that is as much about tasting fine wine as it is tomatoes – and runs a thriving heirloom tomato seed company. In 2001, he wanted to pay tribute to his friend by naming a variety in her honor, so he asked her what type it should be. Expecting her to say “beefsteak” or “red” she instead said with that trademark voice “tasty, my dear.” And true to the legacy of its namesake, it is delicious.

So the next time you open a bottle of wine, pause a moment and raise your glass and toast Julia Child, the remarkable woman who played a large part in elevating the wine consciousness of a nation. As Julia would say: Bon Appetit!

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